Terrorism and Radicalization: Two Words We Must Retire

I’ve wanted to write about the abuse of the word terrorism for quite a while. The horrible shooting in Las Vegas provides another opportunity to do so.

Whenever an individual strikes a crowd with a vehicle or mows people down with a gun, I, and I assume many other people, become somewhat preoccupied with the individual’s identity. Is he a Muslim? Is he a reclusive older white man? Is he an immigrant? Is he a young Black man? Is he a sexually-frustrated young man?

Reactions by people and in the media seem to depend on the answer to these questions. If he turns out to be Muslim, many assume he is a Radical Islamic Terrorist. If he turns out to be an older white man, many assume he is a right-wing extremist. If he turns out to be an immigrant, many assume he exemplifies rampant criminal activity abroad. If he turns out to be Black, many assume is an anti-police activist. If he turns out to be a young man, many assume he used psychotropic drugs or was rejected by women.

No matter the identity, some blame the World Wide Web and other mediums for being breeding grounds for radicalization. This can lead to the dangerous suggestions that governments ought to police the internet and censor so-called hate speech, having confidence that doing so would prevent future mass murders from taking place.

The idea that someone can become radicalized is silly. Radical simply means ideologically extreme. Someone who believes that all people are equal is a radical. How can you get more extreme than all or equal? Someone who believes in the flat tax is radical. How can you get more extreme than flat? Someone who believes in single-payer healthcare is radical. How can you get more extreme than single? Someone who believes in God is radical. How can you get more extreme than God?

The only way to avoid being radical is to contradict yourself or to waffle between opinions constantly without ever taking a principled stand. And I don’t mean to deride all people who are politically or ideologically inconsistent. Perhaps there are reasons to apply certain principles in certain instances while discounting them in others. Perhaps taking a principled stance across the board is impossible, so attempting to do so is a futile effort. But the fact remains: if you’re not radical, you’re bound to be hypocritical.

What I would like to propose is an end to consideration of motive when a violent act is committed.

Of course, I do not mean that intention should be ignored. If I intend to hit a baseball, and I unintentionally injure a passerby, accusing me of assault would be ridiculous. And motive is also useful when defining the degree of an intolerable act like murder. If one plots for months to take his uncle’s life as a means of inheriting his wealth, he is more sinister than one who lashes out in a moment of rage, such as a husband coming home to his wife in bed with another man.

What I mean is that one’s overall political, religious, or social views should be ignored when one violates the rights of others. By ignoring these views, we will find that radical and terrorism are not useful words, but in fact dangerous words when courts and governments acknowledge them.

So-called Radical Islamic Terrorism is the obvious example to analyze. Outside the incredibly rare clear instances of calculated mass murder by an established, political organization, most notably the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda, murders committed by “Muslims” in the name of “Islam” are not terrorism. Terrorism is rational (which is not synonymous with good or correct). That means developed ideologies and long-term plans play a central role in its orchestration.

An individual who read something on the internet and decided to commit mass murder does not deserve the presumption of rationality. It is unimaginable for any moderately rational person to conclude that spraying bullets into a crowd without a tremendous deal of support has any chance of winding up in something other than hasty death or imprisonment via law enforcement. Individuals who make these choices are unlikely to consider the consequences of their actions with enough depth to even reach the point of asking these questions.

In short, how can one who is so incompetent as to fail to realize or even care about the inevitable result of their violence be considered radical? They aren’t thoughtful enough to be terrorists, let alone radical.

What’s more, at what point does one formally qualify as a Muslim? Or a Conservative? Or an Environmentalist? Or a Communist? Can one speak his political identity into existence? Does some supreme authority govern the criteria one must meet to be legitimately part of a social or ideological movement?

Or is it utterly subjective? And is it wholly possible that two self-proclaimed or linguistically-defined members of the same sociopolitical group have little in common in terms of underlying philosophy and agenda?

Over the past year, due to the success of populist politics and a handful of small, mainstream-media-hyped demonstrations, a popular question has been posed: is it okay to punch a Nazi?

Nazism and other forms of identity-driven Authoritarianism are certainly radical, and horrible acts of terror and violence have been committed in their names. But what makes a Nazi a Nazi? Auto-designation?

The problem with the German Nazis was not that they believed Aryans were a superior race. The problem was that they murdered 6 million Jews (and millions of others) and invaded sovereign nations. Had they committed the same crimes via another ideology, for purely practical reasons, or out of sheer boredom, the death toll and destruction would remain equally horrifying and criminal.

If a Nazi is a person who is preparing to annihilate an ethnic (or random) group of individuals (i.e., an actual Nazi), attempting to physically apprehend him is not only just, but possibly obligatory. An attack on him is an attack on terror.

But if his beliefs and words are extreme, and he has yet to harm a fly, aggression against him is an attack on free thought and free expression, not terrorism. Physically attacking an actual Nazi is not just because it combats the ideas of Nazism; it is just because it combats violence. There is no difference between murdering for the preservation of the White Race and murdering for the preservation of the environment. Murder is murder.

All in all, condemning and combating radicalization accomplishes nothing aside from putting all of our rights to free speech in jeopardy. What says your sincerely-held and innocuous beliefs won’t be deemed radical and unacceptable next?

We’re very lucky to live amongst other human beings, the vast majority of whom are too preoccupied with survival and happiness to consider extreme acts of violence. Don’t let rarities like actual terrorism drive our existence further away from perfection.

Terrorism and Radicalization: Two Words We Must Retire

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